An Immense World by Ed Yong review – The Amazing Ways Animals Live Our Planet | science and nature books

sCalops have eyes. Not just two eyes, like humans, or eight eyes, like most spiders, but up to 200 eyes, each of them clenched with thin wavy claws protruding from the inner edges of the corrugated shell. Given how primitive the scallop’s brain is, these eyes are surprisingly sophisticated. Play a scallop video of juice particles drifting in the water, as researchers at the University of South Carolina did, and potentially opening its shell, as if it was taking a bite.

It is possible, broadly speaking, to say what is happening here. The scallop’s eyes transmit visual information to its brain, creating an image, however blurry, of some succulent plankton approaching, and it’s off to work. The shell opens wide, plankton floats inside, and Explode, Explode! Dinner is served.

It’s an elegant enough explanation, but it’s not true. Reality, as with most cases in Ed Young’s wonderful new book on animal cognition, is more complex, more mysterious, and surprisingly more bizarre.

Young has a knack for vivid analogies, and here he invites us to think of the scallop’s brain “as a security guard watching a bank of a hundred screens, each connected to a motion-sensing camera…the cameras may be in perfect condition—art, but the images they capture It is not sent to the guard. What appears instead is a warning light for every camera that detects something, and the ranger reacts without actually imagining the prey. If that interpretation is correct—and Young has always been vigilant about the possibility that it might not—then the scallop “doesn’t go through a movie in its head in the same way. which we are going through. You see without sightings.”

Ed Young: A Book Full of Surprising
Ed Young: A book full of little surprises. Photography: Ursula Soltes

This raises more questions, not least: Why do scallops have such sharp eyes if their brains can’t process visual data? Young doesn’t give us a definitive answer, but the example raises a deeper point that lies at the heart of his book. We humans are so deeply ingrained in our own way of seeing the world that we find it hard not to impose our view on other creatures – if we really bother thinking about it at all.

A British science writer based in the United States, Young is drawn to material that pushes our understanding to the limits. his first book, I join the crowdimmerse yourself in the world of microbes and make often complex topics easily digestible for casual readers without oversimplifying. While working on this follow up, stop by to report Covid to Atlanticand produced a series of deeply researched, and often disruptive, articles that won a Pulitzer Prize.

massive world It may be his boldest pledge yet. Humans, like all creatures, are trapped in sensory bubbles unique to each individual – what Baltic German zoologist Jacob von Oxkull referred to in our name. Umwelt — which means that “we can only tap into a tiny fraction of the fullness of reality,” Young said. Our eyesight is very good, but as close to panoramic as that of a duck, which “sees the world moving toward and away from it at the same time” when flying. Nor can we perceive ultraviolet colors, as most animals can, or smell the underwater terrain of mountains and valleys, as some seabirds seem to be able to do.

We may feel like masters of our planet, having mapped every inch of its land mass and stared into the bowels of the atom, but when it comes to understanding what it’s like to be a songbird using the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate across continents, we hardly know where to begin.

Young is ready to give it his best, not least because he understands how harmful it can be to ignore the views of other creatures. When we blindly flood the world with light and sound, we wreak havoc on bird and turtle migrations and disrupt owls and orcas in their search for food. Even scientists who have spent years working with a single species can spoil research by not fully considering their point of view. But Young also enjoys delving into other things Umwelts Just for her sheer charm. One of the scientists told him: “We don’t have to look at aliens from other planets.” “We have animals that have a completely different interpretation of what the world is next to us.”

Mallards has a panoramic view of the world
Mallards has a panoramic view of the world. Photography: Alami

She has a point: Who needs sci-fi when you have a blind catfish with teeth sensitive to flowing through its skin, crickets with ears on their knees, or a dolphin that can perceive your guts through echolocation? Even daily encounters seem extraordinary through Young’s “magic magnifying glass.” The jerky movements of flies hovering around the living room are not random, but in response to fluctuations in temperature are too insignificant for humans to detect. Hearing of the chirping changes with the seasons, accelerating in the fall, while large flocks form, becoming more sensitive in the spring, to record the minute details of the mating calls.

The book is so full of such small astonishment, so beautifully rendered, that Young sometimes risks drowning out our sense of astonishment. By the time we get to the chapter on magnetic reception — easily the most confusing of all senses, in part because no one is sure where the relevant receptors are — it’s almost comforting when he admits that he “has no idea how to start thinking about the magnetic field.” Umwelt From a loggerhead turtle.”

But it is the attempt that counts, and Young has brilliantly brought to light these strange worlds—worlds that revolve around us every day, like plankton around scallops, but whose richness and exotic weirdness we rarely stop to examine. Now, thanks to this book, we have sights to help us see.

A Colossal World: How Animals’ Senses Reveal the Hidden Worlds Around Us by Ed Yong is published by Bodley Head (£20). to support guardian And the observer Request your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply